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Earth Is Not Vengeful—It’s Just Indifferent

Massive ecological disasters are certain, but fall on uncertain time scales. How, if at all, do we prepare?

I happened to be in Seattle when I read “The Really Big One,” Kathryn Schultz’s New Yorker feature about the devastating Pacific Northwest earthquake experts think could hit any day. I was traveling for work — a three-day trip — and eating dinner alone in a sushi bar two blocks from the waterfront, scrolling on my phone with my left hand, chopsticks in my right. (Seattle’s weather in July is uncharacteristically perfect: The sun was streaming through the tall windows; it wouldn’t set, and then gorgeously, until after 9 p.m.) When I got to the part where a regional Federal Emergency Management Agency director says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast,” I looked up and wondered if I could move up my flight.

“The Seattle earthquake,” as I’ve come to think of this looming event, is particularly threatening because the associated fault line is a subduction zone — a place where two tectonic plates push against, and over, each other. Subduction zones (sometimes called “megathrusts”) are capable of producing earthquakes with magnitudes of 9.0 or higher. They were responsible for the earthquakes that caused the 2011 tsunami in Japan, leading to the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, and the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, which killed nearly a quarter of a million people — the deadliest tsunami in recorded history.

Geologist Charles Rubin, by studying caves near the coast of Indonesia, has discovered that Indian Ocean tsunamis don’t strike on a schedule. His team dug into the cave floor and found that they could date past tsunamis by the layers of guano interspersed with sea sand. The pattern is irregular — sometimes there are long gaps of hundreds of years; at other times the tsunamis strike in clusters. There is no necessary reprieve before another tsunami hits. The Cascadia subduction zone in the Pacific Northwest, in contrast, is more periodic: There have been 41 Cascadia earthquakes in the past 10,000 years, occurring roughly every 240 years. The last one, however, was in 1700—that’s 317 years ago.

Both will come again, in time — one is unpredictable; the other predictable, but well overdue. Which is more frightening?

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Cumbra Vieja, Spanish for “Old Summit,” is a volcanic ridge in the Canary Islands that some people think could collapse into the ocean, generating a tsunami or, as the BBC once termed it, a “mega-tsunami.” (Tsunamis can arise from impact events, like a landslide or an asteroid, or from earthquakes on the ocean floor.) I first heard about Cumbra Vieja when I moved to Boston in 2002 for graduate school. My boyfriend at the time informed me that, if this island collapsed, we would have five or six hours’ notice before the tsunami arrived in Boston. He formulated a plan: As soon as we heard the news, we should start walking west, wherever we were. We toyed with establishing a meeting place, but the most important thing was to move. Some models predicted that a Cumbra Vieja collapse could flood the East Coast up to 16 miles inland.

I lived in Boston for 10 years, and Cumbra Vieja did not collapse. I thought of it rarely during that decade. Recently I learned that the research, originally published in 1999, is controversial; an article in Science of Tsunami Hazards indicated that landslides may occur more gradually. I now live in Denver, far from any coasts. I sometimes remark to my husband, who misses his native New England, that I feel relatively safe here — safe from coastal flooding and violent storms related to climate change, safe from California’s earthquakes. “What about drought?” he says. “And the caldera?”

A caldera is a giant, crater-like depression where the Earth has sunk in after an enormous underground pocket of magma releases pressure. There’s one at Yellowstone — it’s so large nobody saw it at first, almost as large as the park. And the volcano is active. A geologist named Robert Smith has been working in Yellowstone for decades. In the 1970s, he noticed that the trees on the south side of Yellowstone Lake had become waterlogged. He re-surveyed the area and found that the whole lake had been displaced. Between 1923 and 1977, the center of the caldera had risen two feet, relocating the lake. More recently, the center has fallen again. Based on the placement of excavated arrowheads, which would have been left along the coast of the lake, archeologists have determined that the lake has been rising and falling for 15,000 years. It’s as though the whole caldera is inhaling and exhaling.

The Yellowstone caldera is a supervolcano — the “really big one” of volcanoes. A single supervolcano eruption is a million times more powerful than Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The last time the Yellowstone supervolcano erupted, it was a thousand times bigger than Mount St. Helens, which blasted seven billion tons of rock from the side of the mountain, enough to bury Manhattan in 55 feet of debris. Supervolcanoes eject billions of cubic feet of ash, compared to millions ejected by a standard volcano. (It’s worth remembering how much more than a million a billion is. If you made a billion dollars last year, and paid a tax rate of 99 percent, you’d still have $10 million.)

“If there is a breach in the dam, there will be no warning. It’s a nuclear bomb with an unpredictable fuse.”

We would have warning if the Yellowstone caldera were about to blow. Volcanic eruptions begin with earthquakes, and a series of earthquakes over weeks or months would presage an eruption. (Disasters are intimately related: Earthquakes cause tsunamis and volcanoes, and volcanoes and earthquakes cause tsunamis; global warming can lead to increases in all three.) But even given a lead time of years, we likely could not adequately prepare for such an event. We would be able to evacuate the immediate area, of course, where pyroclastic flows of fast-moving rock, gas, and ash — what volcanologist Bill McGuire describes as “an avalanche on steroids” — would essentially boil bystanders alive. (There’s a map online where a big red circle blots out most of Wyoming and Montana; it’s labeled KILL ZONE.)

But the effects would be far-reaching, in both time and space. Denver is in the “downwind” area, and within a day the ashfall could be deeper than three feet: a blizzard of ash. But wet ash is much heavier than wet snow. If stranded in the open, you could suffocate. People would lose power and water. Planes in flight might crash, and aircraft would be grounded, as in the aftermath of the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Disturbingly, volcanic ash isn’t really ash; it’s more like finely ground rock, but jagged, almost like tiny shards of glass. Even hundreds of miles from the volcano, it can cause Marie’s disease, also known as hypertrophic pulmonary osteoarthropathy.

In 1971, paleontologist Michael Voorhies chanced upon a site now known as the Ashfall Fossil Beds, in northeastern Nebraska. A rare lagerstätte, or exceptionally well preserved sedimentary deposit, the fossil beds revealed a mass grave of animals who died near a watering hole 12 million years ago. In the book Supervolcano: The Catastrophic Event That Changed the Course of Human History, authors Marie Jones and John Savino describe the cause of this slow, painful death, a supervolcano nearly a thousand miles from the watering hole:

Once the ash got into their lungs, it combined with naturally occurring moisture in the lungs to form a kind of cement. Birds and turtles were the first species to die as their lungs filled up with sediment; musk deer and small carnivores were next. The larger animals were also having trouble breathing. Inside their bodies, their bones were growing abnormal patches of highly porous new bone matter, especially around the lower jaw and on the shafts of major limbs, as well as their ribs. This is evidence that they were not getting enough oxygen.

According to a Naked Science documentary I found on YouTube (clearly cut for television— the video keeps showing the same simulation of a future Yellowstone blast over and over again, for viewers just joining us), “normal life within 500 miles of the volcano would be impossible.” And the worst effects would come months or years later, after crops have failed and livestock have perished.

Like an asteroid impact, a supervolcano can cause global cooling, forming an ash cloud that blocks the sun and leads to widespread famine. At this moment in history, when we’re breaking new heat records every month and the permafrost is melting, global cooling doesn’t sound so bad. But we don’t know what the baseline will be when it happens. What if some other disaster has already altered the global climate? A “mini ice age” in the 1300s has been tied to both volcanic and earthquake activity in Europe and the bubonic plague — there is debate over whether famine led to weakened immune systems, making populations more vulnerable to the plague, or whether mass deaths from the plague led to reforestation and subsequent global cooling.

While searching for information about volcanoes and tsunamis from my local library, I discovered a series of choose-your-own-adventure–style books titled, for example, Can You Survive an Asteroid Strike? The subtitle on each book is An Interactive Doomsday Adventure. Unable to resist, I checked two of them out. In the preamble to Asteroid Strike, the reader finds herself (since such books are always in the second person) watching an alarming news announcement on TV. A “Dr. Grady,” Stanford University astrophysicist, is being interviewed. The news anchor asks, “Aren’t we lucky that it’s hitting water instead of land?” “No, no, no,” he answers. “If anything, that’s worse”:

“This impact will affect everyone on Earth. It will create a tsunami 1 to 2 kilometers high. It will set off massive earthquakes worldwide, which will cause even more tsunamis.”

The news anchor “goes white”; asks, “So people need to get to high ground to be safe?”

Grady sighs. “In the short term, I suppose so. But understand, this changes everything. Flaming debris raining down everywhere. Massive earthquakes rocking the entire planet. Rock, dust, and steam blanketing Earth. We’re talking about nuclear winter.”

I never read this kind of book as a kid, and my interactive doomsday adventure ended rather quickly. (Admittedly, asteroids are my fantasy death, but I’d prefer to die at ground zero, on impact, not later, in failed survivor mode.) I made the “mistake” of stopping to help an injured man in a suit. He turns out to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives. “You’re one of the most powerful people in the country,” “I” say. “How come you don’t have your own car? Or helicopter?” The man waves his cell phone. “Lines are jammed.”

I think back to the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. I was already living in Denver, but my husband and I both had Boston area codes, and no landline. We couldn’t place calls that afternoon. Recently, I tried to meet up with friends at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, but in the enormous crowds, none of our phones were working — calls would drop, texts wouldn’t go through — and we couldn’t find each other. This alone makes the prospect of a catastrophe more terrifying: How on Earth would we find anyone?

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How are we supposed to feel about these natural threats, both certain and vague? Does their inevitability even help us prepare? In Waking the Giant, a book about the ways climate change accelerates natural disasters, Bill McGuire writes:

Having seen the global warming problem coming for more than 100 years, then, it seems quite incredible that we have yet to act decisively in order to do something about it. Or maybe not so extraordinary. Humans, as individuals, as groups, and together as a society, seem to be hard-wired to respond quickly and effectively to a sudden threat, but not to a menace that makes itself known stealthily and over an extended period of time.

If this is true, we’re like the proverbial frog in a pot of boiling water, lulled into inaction by the slowly rising temperature. We’re poorly equipped to deal with so-called “long emergencies.” And how can we prepare for a threat so big we can’t even imagine it? As the narrator of a Discovery Channel segment on Cumbra Vieja puts it, “There is a problem with all major natural catastrophes: Because we’ve never experienced these things, we don’t think they’re going to happen to us, so we ignore them.”

I think of another long New Yorker piece, about “the most dangerous dam in the world.” Mosul Dam in Iraq was built on an unstable foundation and could kill up to a million and a half people if, or more likely when, it fails. “If there is a breach in the dam, there will be no warning,” says Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-American civil engineer and advisor on the dam. “It’s a nuclear bomb with an unpredictable fuse.” And yet, people in the nearby farming village of Wanke, which would end up under 60 feet of water, just don’t think much about it.

This reminds me, too, of Chernobyl survivors, whose oral testimony Svetlana Alexievich collects in the book Chernobyl Prayer. Life before impending disaster and life after unexpected disaster may both require a la-la-la mentality. A clean-up worker tells Alexievich, “You can’t be frightened the whole time, a person can’t do that; some time goes by, and ordinary life starts up again.” “Normalization,” then, is incredibly normal, a way of coping with terror by resetting our default values. (The “Chernobyl people,” as Alexievich calls them, also love to tell jokes about the disaster: “I don’t like crying. I like hearing new jokes. They grew some tobacco in the Chernobyl zone. In the factory, they made it into cigarettes. Each pack had a message: ‘Ministry of Health: smoking is bad for you. This is your last warning.’ Ha ha.”) Perhaps the villagers, in both Iraq and Belarus, are more rational not to worry: Why bother, when there’s nothing you can do? Ignoring the threat may be your best strategy, if thinking about it is too much to bear.

Part of the reason Chernobyl people had difficulty processing what happened to them was because nothing had prepared them for it. Alexievich writes:

The night of 26 April 1986. In the space of one night we shifted to another place in history. We took a leap into a new reality, and that reality proved beyond not only our knowledge but also our imagination. Time was out of joint. The past suddenly became impotent, it had nothing for us to draw on; in the all-encompassing — or so we’d believed — archive of humanity, we couldn’t find a key to open this door. Over and over in those days, I would hear, “I can’t find the words to express what I saw and lived through”; “Nobody’s ever described anything of the kind to me”; “Never seen anything like it in any book or movie.”

This suggests that watching disaster movies or reading survival stories might help us, in some subliminal way, prepare for real catastrophes, or adjust to the aftermath, by giving us narrative frameworks. And, in fact, astronauts go through so many simulations, often in hyper-convincing virtual reality environments, before they actually get to space that responses become internalized, so in a real emergency, you carry out procedures almost automatically — as though you were still in the simulation.

Worry, like attention, is a limited resource; we can’t worry about everything at once.

The residents near Chernobyl were baffled when clean-up workers dug up and destroyed their crops, even shot their pets. Many were more afraid of the crews than what the crews warned them of — the visible versus the invisible threat. A soldier reports: “It all felt like an exercise, a game. But it was genuine war. A war that was a mystery to us; where there was no telling what was dangerous and what wasn’t, what to fear and what not to fear. No one knew.” They also did not know who to blame — the staff at the plant? Science itself? Themselves, for trusting the scientists? It was a war with no enemy.

Ecological disasters create the conditions of war, while giving us no one to bargain with. Who can we fight, or beg mercy from? Science improves our predictive power, but those predictions are often just a preview of the coming brute reality. While they may go some way toward preparing us psychologically, they can’t in themselves protect us.

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Last year, on Twitter, I saw a link to an article: “Should We Feel Guilty About Gentrification? This Podcast Will Help You Decide.” I laughed at the absurdity of listening to a podcast just to get help deciding whether or not to feel guilty. A few months later, I spotted a book at the library, on a rack of recently returned books, called What Should We Be Worried About? These seem to be real questions we’re wrestling with — where do I focus my anxiety so I can feel like a good citizen in an anxious society? It’s as though we need to worry about the right problems, even if we can’t solve them.

Worry, like attention, is a limited resource; we can’t worry about everything at once. That means most of us are worrying about immediate threats — like losing our jobs or our health care — rather than nebulous threats that may or may not occur at any point over thousands of years, even if those are ultimately greater threats. One way to conserve our worry, as it were, is to offload it to others — experts who presumably know better than us the appropriate level of fear, and when to apply it. This may be an effective means of reducing personal anxiety, but it doesn’t necessarily make us safer. Before 2011, most seismologists believed that earthquakes with magnitudes higher than 8.4 were not possible in Japan. This is why Japan, where earthquakes and tsunamis are common, was unprepared for the consequences.

With diseases, prevention is better than cure — there’s no cure for polio, so we need the vaccine. But we can’t prevent these kinds of disasters. Take the Yellowstone caldera — can we lessen the force of an eruption by drilling down into the magma chamber to release some of the pressure? Not at all. Even if you were able to overcome the technological challenge of drilling that far down, says Daniel Dzurisin, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program, “all you would be doing is a pinprick, in a very large, very complicated system — it’s not just a big balloon full of magma, and it wouldn’t notice.”

I thought about that line for weeks: It wouldn’t notice. We can study a subduction zone obsessively, or pretend it doesn’t exist. Millions of people who live in areas vulnerable to megathrust tsunamis don’t even have the choice to worry or not; they don’t know the threat exists to begin with. Especially now, when we’re likely past the point of avoiding a climate calamity of our own creation, disasters can feel like karmic punishment. But the Earth is not a vengeful god — just an indifferent one.